By Uditha Devapriya
There’s an image of Hejaaz Hizbullah I return to over and over again. It’s an image of him holding a placard at a protest vigil against the October 2018 constitutional coup. The placard reads, “Asilachaara parliamenthuwak wenuwata seelachara parliamenthuwak” (“A cultured parliament in place of an uncultured parliament”). The reason why it resonates with me is that, even in the ecstatic way he holds it, he is quite unlike the Hejaaz Hizbullah I once knew. But then I realise that the Hejaaz I knew, or thought I knew from a distance, couldn’t have been the real guy. This becomes more relevant when we talk about where he is now, what he is alleged to have done, and why we should reappraise him.
I first encountered the man in 2013 at my law school. He didn’t lecture us until two years later, in our third year. It would be quite unbecoming of me to say he exuded a critical, even dispassionate, distance between himself and his students. But say it I will. Hejaaz never seemed to get emotionally involved with what he taught. He came, he lectured, he made sure we understood what he said, and he left. I never saw him thereafter, not even at the many functions and events organised by my law school. At first, and for years afterwards, I assumed he was too busy with his practice to think of life outside lecture halls and chambers and courts. I couldn’t have been more wrong about a person.
Hejaaz was quite probably the most enigmatic lecturer I ever came across. What made him more enigmatic was that unlike most other lecturers who shield their private lives beneath a monkish calm facade, he taught exceptionally well. Lecturers resort to secrecy because they know they’re not good enough at their job, and know that their students know. Not this lecturer. That could mean only one thing. He was so deeply committed to his other lives that he couldn’t let those other lives interfere with this one. Underneath that dispassionate smile and frown, then, there was another man. A good man.
I gradually realised that in addition to his practice and his activism, he was also a writer. At the time I was sitting for my A Levels in 2011, he wrote a particularly well thought out piece on the issue of the burka ban in France. Bizarrely enough, his stance on the problem – back when burkas and the identity of Muslim women and men were spreading like wildfire throughout Europe – coincided with the views of the very same Sinhala Buddhist nationalist crowd that demonises him as a terrorist sympathiser today. No less an articulator of this ideology than Professor Nalin de Silva, speaking at a forum from around that period, said openly that the burka ban made clear the identity crisis in Western civilisation: in its quest to balance the aspirations of a White Christian majority and the reality of multiculturalism, Europe was trying to impose restrictions on displays of Muslim identity under the pathetic excuse of “emancipating” and “liberating” Muslim women.
Hejaaz underscored this point a year later in a piece on the controversial anti-Islamic short documentary, Innocence of Muslims: “Even in the way the West defines free speech, it is not an unfettered, untrammelled absolute right. It is pegged in and restricted. Under the standard narrative, in deciding whether to decree something as free speech or not, there is a need to balance competing considerations but when it comes to Muslims, what we see is not a balance but really a bias. There are examples a plenty.” Now this is just about the same point Nalin de Silva and the Jathika Chintanaya have been making in column after column. It is a point I agree with and it couldn’t be any more correct.
The failure of the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist crowd, with which I sympathise a great deal, has always been their inability to form a common front with other communities hard done by intrusions of Western Islamophobia and Anglo-Saxon supremacy. Thus it is not okay for Evangelists to spread God’s word resorting to unethical means, but it is okay for Buddhist monks to form organisations – ostensibly of friendship and amity – linked to Israel. Thus it is not okay for the US to bomb the poor of West Asia, but it is okay for nationalist politicians to suggest that the US use our airspace to launch attacks on West Asia. With such inexorable contradictions does the nationalist crowd operate today.
All that, however, is peripheral to my main point. More than Hejaaz’s arrest, which raises concerns that I, as a mere law student, am neither qualified nor able to address or assess, what distresses me is that infamous “court of public opinion” which automatically deems him a terrorist supporter and financier. When did “innocent until proven guilty” jump out of the window, reduced to an empty, meaningless phrase?
Hejaaz has become this year what Shafi Shihabdeen became last year. What is ironic here is that Hejaaz represented Dr Shafi, just as he represented other clients, other organisations, other public interest groups, since he took oaths. Dayan Jayatilleka called Kumar Sangakkara “a throwback to that generation of educated, internationally accomplished progressive Ceylonese [NOT ‘Sri Lankan’ – U. D.].” I would tone down a bit and dare to call Hejaaz, if not a throwback to, then a reminder of a generation of educated, accomplished progressive Sri Lankan Muslims, whose stand on chauvinism and communalism of all forms has attracted ire from extremists and praise from moderates. We have it from Gehan Gunatilleka that he called the Easter attackers “fools who died as fools.” I can picture Hejaaz saying that. It was in him. It couldn’t have been anyone else. Certainly not any of the mainstream reluctant-to-condemn-extremism Muslim MPs we have today.
I have seen the moderate Muslim, and I know in retrospect that he or she is a more complex human being than what either side of the divide prefers to see. The moderate Muslim is not necessarily opposed to burkas, but neither is he or she with those who wish to radicalise the Muslim population in the country by emphasising on Muslim-ness as opposed to Sri Lankan-ness. The moderate Muslim is opposed to the little Arabias that sprang up in the East of this country, under the watch NOT of a minority party but of a UPFA Muslim MP, but he or she is just as fervently opposed to those who try to make it out that this, somehow, represents the entirety of the Muslim race in the country. The moderate Muslim is seen as fitting a specific stereotype: he or she is invariably English educated, middle class, fluent in Sinhala and not just in Tamil, and outspoken against Islamisation. In many cases, this is true. Certainly, it is true of the S. Thomas’ educated, bilingual, and outspoken Hejaaz Hizbullah. But even then, they are not willing to concede to their own stereotype.
Indeed, you’d be surprised to know that the same man demonised as a terrorist today wrote the following at the height of the halal (non-)issue in 2013:
‘Who needs ‘halaal’ certification? It’s certainly not the Muslim consumer, but the businesses that crave for halaal recognition. I say this because there was a time before [the] halaal certification. Even then there were brands that had established consumer goodwill and trust to the effect that their products were ‘halaal’. So take away the ACJU halaal certification and market forces will come into play and either some other body will issue the license or producers themselves will find ways to build consumer confidence. In fact all what the ACJU has done is make it easy for anybody to access the Muslim market for their goods and services. It has particularly helped new players to enter the market. To those thinking only in religious terms, ‘new’ translates often to ‘non-Muslim’ as Muslim businesses find it easier to establish consumer goodwill even without [the] certification. So as a Muslim consumer, the future of halaal certification does not trouble me.”
Extremist? Jihadist? Al-Qaeda supporter? Hardly.
Dr Dayan called Kumar Sangakkara’s questioning a “symptom and symbol.” I rather think Hejaaz’s arrest is also a symptom and symbol, of a great many among us who are ready to throw stones, swords, knives, and daggers at anyone suspected of something, anything. But even a cursory examination of the man’s record should, as it will, confirm that the values he has purported to stand for are at odds with their image of him.
Symptom and symbol of this, yes. Of what else though? I would say, without a doubt, of an upsurge in Islamophobia among a younger section of the population. It was the anger of this crowd that I saw, most markedly, on social media during the Shafi case (which, if I need to remind you again, transpired NOT under a Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration but under the supposedly more liberal, progressive Wickremesinghe-Sirisena yahapalana regime). I should know: though I wasn’t caught up in the hysteria, I publicly, openly displayed my sympathies with those who alleged the man had done what he had done. In hindsight I realise my error, and I apologise: it shows that even those fundamentally opposed to bigotry could easily fall under the spell, the hysteria, of bigots.
It is pointless, as certain commentators tend to do, to throw stones at and cast aspersions on this administration. Hejaaz Hizbullah’s arrest was made under the present regime a year after Dr Shafi’s arrest under a regime led by the now Opposition. Who’s kidding who here, if all we do is trace the contours of racism to a particular government without realising, and of course conceding, that this is an institutional (and institutionalised) problem? These arrests have already been validated, by a crowd only too eager to portray even the most moderate of moderates as villains of the piece. It’s all scripted. The players need only take their places. Hejaaz certainly has. And so have many of us.
It didn’t have to be this way.